Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

Desperately Seeking Sylvia

Wedding Day
Dana Levin
Copper Canyon Press (2005) 72 pages
ISBN 1-55659-219-1

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! In the second of the three sections of Dana Levin's volume, Wedding Day, she describes some of the ways she goes about arriving at a poem. At least three of the four methods describe approaches to automatic writing and/or unchaperoned flow of consciousness: that is to say, a getting out of the way of the subconscious. As "Working Methods," the lone poem in the section, says:

You must be your own absence

The poem is one of several from the volume that first appeared in American Poetry Review, and that now appear in a Copper Canyon volume, which facts suggest an imprimatur of sorts. These methods are validated. Levin is the new writing-program enfant terrible, the Rimbaud of the power-point presentation.

Levin's subjects are writing and the social and environmental violence and fragmentation inherent in contemporary life. As subjects go, they are quite common, actually:

But I needed a new way to say things: sad tired I
           with its dulled violations, lyric with loss in its faculty den—

She is trying to overcome the impetus that can so easily go along with being a member of the comfortable middle class and of academia, to learn how to provoke the immediate. She seeks to accomplish this by finding a new way to say things, or vice-versa, she seeks to find a new way to say things by overcoming this impetus. A new way of saying things is a new way of seeing things or perhaps a way of seeing them at all. To find a new way of saying things is to see them without the intervention of the amphibian middle eyelid of day to day living.

Automatic writing is not a new way to find a new way to say things. For a considerable time, during the 20s and 30s, it was the astonishing new method of Surrealism, which, after its initial Dadaist phase, sought to summon the immediate subconscious. Then, too, it resulted in a poetry of fragmentation and violence. All for the better, it seemed at the time. The intention, among those surrealists who managed to have a collective intention, was to use fragmentation and violence in order to shatter an oppressive societal structure, betrayed by rampant rationality. Of course, it didn't hurt that psychology was also trendy and great fun.

It bears saying that, while the dominant poets of Dada and Surrealism are historical names we continue to admire, the poetry of automatic writing—of getting out of the way of the subconscious—has not weathered well. The aesthetic of ephemerality (which has been called upon to rescue the poems from this fact) notwithstanding, the poems suffer from a range of problems that would seem clearly to have been inherent in the method. Poets tended, like Andre Breton, to be compelling by virtue of their various publicity stunts and notably rational prose manifestoes. The poetry itself survives as a curiosity: a scattering of occasionally remarkable images on a carrier-wave of babble.

This is not in the least to say that there were no great Surrealist poets. The list only begins with Lorca. Cocteau did exceptional work in every genre and media he touched. A young Octavio Paz took away more than one important lesson from his apprenticeship with Breton and company. But none of these poets tarried long (if at all) with automatic writing. Each was watchful, instead, for those moments when the subconscious surges up in the normal course of our lives. Lorca and Cocteau, in particular, mined the world of dreams, Lorca the world of children. Paz was charier with his effects, which came to him more from Lorca by way of Neruda. These resources—the worlds of dreams, of madness and of children, and the study of the methods of exceptional poets who came before—gave us an astonishing poetry. A poet, writing today, who took nothing from this Surrealism would seem bland.

Predictably, in the better poems from Dana Levin's Wedding Day she goes to these same resources. In short, they bespeak her close study of the work of Sylvia Plath, whose fierce final poems exhibit the hyper-lucidity of a seasoned high-wire performer who has irrecoverably lost her balance above shattering chasms of madness. While, in general, following Plath may promise only a marginally better success than automatic writing, Levin's considerable talents seem up to the daunting task.

In the poem "I Asked Why I Was Better at Truth than Love," by far the best in the volume, Levin wields some of Plath's most effective tools with a practiced hand. The reader relives, time-lapse fashion, the stages of fetal development. The mock-innocent question, chosen to drive home a startling discontinuity, is straight out of the earlier poet:

You ask.
Will it have a heart?
           And the carbon in its chest
flames up in a vise, diamond in a pool
           of fire—

At least as much to the point, however, in this poem the question resolves itself in an incantation that conjures the heart, an effect that is wholly the poet's own. Plath's mock-exultant exclamations, beginning with the emphatic "O," are only slightly altered here by virtue of the fact that we can still genuinely say "O" in the presence of what remains a miracle even in our day:

And a choir is singing.
At each corner of the ceiling, thousands shunted
           next to one another,
stiff as little pins—Singing O trunk of glass, O open eye

This is a poem that any poet might proudly point to as evidence that it all came to something remarkable on a given day, something well worth the years of strange preoccupation.

The poem "Ambivalent Light" on the next page is the best of the remaining poems and still an exceptional piece of work. The hospital room descriptions with their "white nurses hovering and zipping away / like white bees" are wholly Plath but remain effective nonetheless. Levin is most herself in a brief aside:

Excuse me for coming here again and again.
For not knowing how to make it new.
For not knowing
                      how to freshen it up, this old game, Suffering.

While the humility of the passage recommends it, the gratuitous line break and the self-conscious intrusion of the poet-as-poet into the poem drives its point home with ironic force.

There are other poems that depend less directly on Levin's stated working methods, and they, too, are among the better in the book: in particular, "American Poet," "The Washing," and two "Desire" poems. But where the method seems to be relied upon as craft rather than exercise, the results are less successful. Exceptional images are scattered liberally throughout poems that fail to cohere.

The other tools that she seeks to wield are not always well chosen either. Her sense of pacing is the grace that saves some of these poems from being simply a concatenation of vaguely related images. Her selection in the occasional foreign phrase is not happy. Such phrases should only be used when they serve a purpose that English would not have served equally well. In Wedding Day they are poeticisms, cliché. Her nature images fare better, as the rule, but are sometimes vague for the obvious reason she is not quite sure of her facts. It is difficult to write a raven image that is not tired with age, for example, and the attempt in "It Was Yoked to a Black Hunger" fails through the very lines that are meant to accomplish it:

it pecked and pecked, until the one red spot welled up.
A thin steam from the rabbit, like a wick blown out.

Only under the most extreme conditions has the raven ever been known to take live prey. It is a scavenger by nature. By being vague about how the bird has come to be before this expiring rabbit, the poet has not actually said it was prey. Perhaps whatever predator brought it to the verge of death was forced away by some circumstance. The effect of the lines is lost, however, for the reader who wonders just how the pieces fit together or if they fit together only because the poet became attached to an understandably attractive but misconceived image.

The remaining poems are not so spurious as that other Surrealism. Levin does not include entirely unrelated lines, on trust, as it were, simply because they happened to come to mind. But this concession, important as it is, is not enough to avoid the sense that these poems too often say in the way that they do primarily in order to be unexpected. This leaves many remarkable images, and the occasional direct prose passage, to accomplish what they can in isolation.

In the poem "Quelquechose" for one example, the poet arrives filled with inner turmoil at a fish shop:

I was in the fish shop, wondering why being experimental means
           not having a point

After this, and another brief related comment, the point of the poem becomes "Something must be written about suffering." That this is by no means the most experimental poem in Wedding Day perhaps allows for a point to be made. But what, if this poem is not an experimental poem, or even about experimental poetry, can the first line mean? One answer would seem to be that this was simply what she thought one day as she entered a fish shop: the line is merely a record. There are more cynical answers.

Genuinely concerned as she is with the emotional violence inherent in life or the times, her aesthetic angst gives way to troubling substance:

But how could I disappear into language when children are being called
            by their mothers—
     who were being called "cunts" by their boyfriends—
     who were being called "dickheads" behind their backs—

The blunt violence of such a passage is welcome. It sweeps aside the "only words" apologetic. The situation she describes is so disheartening that a reader may grab onto the mere rejection of it like a life-preserver. But the internal dialogue steers quickly back to aesthetics, and the scallops intone in chorus, "Nulles idées que dans les choses."

No resolution, it seems, being available, without coming to a more inclusive point than Levin is comfortable with, the poem closes with an epiphany. As she places her order—the externalized "argument" raging around her in everything she sees—she notices the young woman attending at the counter. Somehow the attendant's latex gloves focus the poet's receptive powers, and suddenly, with a notably Medieval style of personification, the young woman becomes "the idea called Tenderness." Unfortunate the reader who does not share a sense of the affinity between latex—or "lank brown hair pulled back" or recently killed haddock or "six bucks an hour" wage or some combination thereof—and tenderness, for she or he has only the poet's assurance that the attendant personified the trait.

A brief redaction of the poem, then, goes something like this: 1) The poet enters a fish store while engaged in a raging internal debate over how properly to make her poetry compelling; 2) She considers the rules of experimental poetry, in particular declares that it can not have a point; 3) She next asks herself "What good is form if it doesn't say anything [?]" 4) She considers the violence of our most intimate relationships today and asks herself how she can "disappear into language" while such conditions exist: 5) She externalizes her dialogue onto the trappings of the store and hears an old saw recited in French by a chorus of scallops; 6) She notices that the counter girl, who is so striking in her absolute lack of striking features or behavior, is the personification of Tenderness.

Half of the considerable problems met in reading this poem are solved if "experimental poetry" and "form" are considered to be synonymous. Then the question, "How could I disappear into language when... [?]" simply means "How can I disappear into experimental poetry when... [?]" But how likely does that seem? Isn't this more or less a volume of experimental poetry (inasmuch as experimental poetry exists anymore as a category apart)?

Of course, all of the problems seem to be solved if the answer is that the poem is meant to simply report the thoughts and feelings of a particular moment, including whatever incoherence they may have involved or that "experimental means / not having a point." But then we are left with a poem made up of at best vaguely related images—some of them quite striking—meant to say nothing in particular, intent on avoiding the pitfall of "having a point."

Dana Levin has predictably had a gratifying degree of success employing her method. A reviewer can understand as well as anyone, after reading his first 200 or so volumes of contemporary poetry, a sense of desperation for something gripping. He can also share an editor's temptation to think that a collection of poems is exceptional by virtue of being undeniably different and exhibiting a liberal scattering of exceptional lines.

Now, there is the fact that great poetry (Am I blushing?) is the result of solving seemingly insoluble problems. If this poet has full faith that this is what she is in the process of doing, she certainly has our attention and all our hopes for the best. If her successes seem too partial, still they are intriguing. But it must be admitted that this is less likely than her being encouraged by her success thus far to continue down a path that arrives at a neat little pile of grinning celebrity skeletons.

By the same token, it must be admitted that the one breathtaking poem in Wedding Day, while it may escape the method, also suggests daunting problems of its own. Mania-as-style tends to descend to regurgitated case-history, pop psychological experimentation or farce soon enough. The fierce hyper-lucidity of mania, if it is to be maintained, requires... mania. Neither the ferocity nor the lucidity is possible without a tormented mind being pushed to its limits and just a bit further. Can we really defend acquiring immediacy at such a cost? Encouraging our poets to qualify for the craft by repeatedly inducing mind-shattering angst, of the sort Plath found essential in her best work, in order to read, as so many voyeurs, the enthralling reports they write while teetering above the abyss?

One thing is clear. Dana Levin's Wedding Day revives questions that poets and readers have debated before while arriving at only the most provisional answers. Poetry itself has become more or less a high-wire affair, as the ante has been continuously raised, the height of the wire being equatable with the degree of success. It can be argued that Plath was just one more step along a path we can no more resist than can a moth the flame. It can not yet, however, be argued that Levin will be another; only that she seems to be the rare applicant whom we can consider seriously.


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